Tornado safe rooms on wish list of area school administrators

Ever since the Joplin tornado in 2011, school administrators from Jefferson City, South Callaway, Blair Oaks and Russellville have wanted to have Federal Emergency Management Agency approved tornado safe rooms for their district.

With tornado season peaking during the months of June and July, the line of school districts interested in acquiring the grant money to help offset the cost of construction has become longer.

To be considered for the grant money, Missouri school districts must apply with the State Emergency Management Agency, who then reviews the applications before passing them onto FEMA. The applications are reviewed on numerous criteria including the calculated need of the applicant, ability to obtain local funding and the public’s ability to use the space.

The money for these grants is appropriated from the Hazard Mitigation program of FEMA, said Mike O’Connell, director of communications for the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

“FEMA sends the money to the states to help them recover from a disaster,” O’Connell said. “Fifteen percent of those funds are for hazard mitigation. Missouri is fortunate because of our enhanced status we actually get 20 percent of those funds that we can allocate for projects.”

FEMA describes a safe room on their website as “a hardened structure specifically designed to provide near-absolute protection in extreme weather events, including tornadoes.”

According to O’Connell, the grant money will only cover 75 percent of the safe room’s construction and will not pay for any non-structure portions of the safe room.

Recent construction of the tornado safe rooms have cost school districts about $400,000.

For example, many of Missouri’s 160 tornado safe rooms are above ground facilities designed as cafeterias, gymnasiums or performing art centers. FEMA would not cover the cost of the tables and chairs for the cafeteria, the bleachers or scoreboards for the gymnasium or the stage for the performing arts center, said O’Connell.

It is this extra cost that is holding back Russellville School District Superintendent Jerry Hobbs from joining the queue of superintendents. The district has pushed back construction of a multipurpose space on the northern side of the high school building to 2020.

“At this time, we do not want to have to ask the people to help us make up the difference with a tax increase,” Hobbs said.

O’Connell said he can understand the circumstances the school districts are facing.

“In a tight economy, not everyone is going to be launching new building projects,” O’Connell said. According to O’Connell, FEMA stipulates the construction must be new, not a remodel or already in progress. “This is not a reimbursement program.”

Representing Jefferson City Public Schools, facility manager Bob Weber said in a statement that the district’s intent was to build them under the new practice gyms and had considered including it in the plans with the last new high school bond issue, but did not include it in the final version.

In the line of school superintendents is South Callaway’s Kevin Hillman, who just completed his first year as superintendent. He said his school had expressed interest in a FEMA grant previously and remained undeterred in getting a safe room.

“We have a great interest in being able to secure the funding for the safety of our children and our community,” Hillman said.

Blair Oaks Superintendent James Jones said the district is planning on applying for the grant in the near future.

“As we consider future building projects, we will consider applying for a tornado safe room,” Jones said. “Obviously, we are always looking into ways to improve the safety of our students and our community.”

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